Dec. 7, 2007 — -- In the world of retail, there's star power, there's celebrity endorsement and then there's Oprah Winfrey. Her Midas touch saves names from anonymity, best sellers from dusty storerooms and favorite things from Internet obscurity.
But as Winfrey has long chosen abstinence in the arena of political endorsements and campaign-trail theater, her capital remains untested. Until now.
In May, Winfrey affirmed her support for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential candidacy to Larry King, describing Obama's leadership as "worth me going out on a limb for." In September, the media titan feted Obama at a California fundraiser, raking in more than $3 million for the Illinois senator's White House bid.
And this weekend, Winfrey hits the trail with the Democratic candidate, making appearances alongside Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Though Winfrey made a third-quarter contribution to Obama's primary bid, she acknowledged that because of contribution limits, "my money isn't going to make any difference to him. I think that my value to him, my support of him, is probably worth more than a check."
Political science professor Matt Baum, who published a research paper "The Oprah Effect" for a 2006 study, described Winfrey as a "nonpartisan, above-the-fray, trusted source for women" who politically "has been difficult to pigeonhole," which Baum said, "furthers her ability to come into it now."
Acknowledging the power of Winfrey's glitter, Baum believes that ultimately she'll have little effect on whether or not Obama can harness the numbers necessary to seize the Democratic presidential nomination.
"By virtue of having endorsed Obama, she's no longer above the fray -- she's in the fray," said Baum, a decision he said could erode Winfrey's capital, since she probably has "more credibility than any other celebrity that lives."
Still, an October poll conducted by USA Today/Gallup showed that more than six in 10 adults said endorsements aren't that important in their support for a candidate. Only 8 percent said Winfrey's backing made them more likely to support Obama; 10 percent said it made them less likely to support the Illinois senator.
But it's not just the endorsement, it's the momentum that comes with it.
Caroline Tolbert, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said in Iowa "having a celebrity endorser may or may not make much of a difference because the caucuses are fought on the ground."
There is still an Oprah factor. Mark Sawyer, the director of UCLA's Center for Race, Ethnicity and Politics, believes a spot on Winfrey's daytime couch played a role in the current president's 2000 victory and Arnold Schwarzenegger's California gubernatorial win in 2003.
"Both of those candidates had real difficulty on policy issues and had issues with women voters," Sawyer said. The "'are-you-a-nice-guy-to-talk-to' aspect of Oprah" made both Bush and Schwarzenegger more approachable candidates, said Sawyer.
Viewer comfort is key when considering Winfrey's No. 1 daytime talk show ratings and status in American pop culture. It lends to the notion that she has, perhaps, transcended race to the 50-some million viewers she amasses every week. Could her presence on the trail help Obama do the same?
Waldo Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, said Obama doesn't need Winfrey for that; he's already done it on his own, particularly for people who "buy into the idea of a colorblind society."
With white voters, Sawyer adds, Obama has been effective at taking advantage of their openness to the "possibility of racial optimism."
"It's been an amazing way to connect," Sawyer says. He says Obama's message to them has been one that reinforces the idea that "if you're so optimistic about race relations and if we're moving in to this post-race America then you should entertain me as an effective candidate."
"Whether you are talking about a media mogul or a politician, their messages are such that they tend to address a fairly broad, aggressive kind of audience and don't speak in what we might call racialized terms or perspectives," Johnson said.
Winfrey is not one to use her "bully pulpit to articulate" matters of race, Johnson pointed out, often framing matters of race with a larger message of social justice.
"To some degree the same can be said for Obama," Johnson said, though it's "not to say that Obama hasn't been front and center on racial issues. They simply haven't been contained to that as other [African-Americans] who have sought the presidency."
Baum said Winfrey is not unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell in that both are "not tied to race or ethnicity" but rather are products of "what you do, how you present yourself, and what issues you focus on."
Baum said those qualities apply to Obama as well. "Clearly, that's a part of his political character, the way he sees himself -- as the great healer. That's how he has situated himself and that's what he's counting on as being part of his appeal."
The notion of transcending race isn't one that appeals to all scholars. Sawyer believes when it comes to Winfrey and Obama, race is very much part of the equation.
"Part of being a black woman makes her accessible, is what makes Oprah real," Sawyer said. "Different viewers can take very different things from someone like Oprah, simultaneously a media mogul and a comforting black woman who comes in and helps a family sort things out."
"She's always authentically herself, authentically real and there's a space in people's minds to think of Oprah that way. Inaccessibility isn't a factor the way it is with Martha Stewart," he said.
Still, Sawyer said Winfrey's power will be tested in being able to reach both white and black women lobbying for Obama over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
"This is where race matters," Sawyer said "because those same audiences might hear the same thing from Oprah but respond to very different kinds of things."
According to her company's Web site, women outnumber men in Winfrey's audience 19 to 1; the show draws around 50 million viewers a week.
Sawyer said Oprah can guide white women to Obama's positions on women's issues, giving him a chance to make inroads with women in the show's "suburban, professional, single" audience subsection, a bloc gaining significant traction as election day nears. Single women ages 18-40 make up 26 percent of eligible voters in 2008, for the first time in history equal in numbers to their married counterparts who are more likely to make their presence known at the ballot box.
For African-American women who overlap in that category, Sawyer said, Oprah's endorsement will be key. Baum said it "helps with any subgroup you might want.
"A comfort level with Hillary and the electability issue," Sawyer said, are what hurt Obama most. "Black women voters are voting strategically and defensively."
Still, he categorizes this moment as "dangerous" for the Clinton campaign. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Clinton with a solid, single-digit lead in New Hampshire, but numbers in Iowa put Obama within striking distance.
"You really don't want to be losing momentum going into the first key primary," Sawyer said. "There wasn't any other strategy for her but to run as the front-runner and sit on the lead."
Baum said, "Her audience on average tends to be less partisan and more persuadable. As elections are decided by smaller and smaller margins, [candidates] reach out to small knots of persuadable voters and her audience is a great place to find them."